Fiction Friday: Xenosaga fic, Chapter 4, part 1

Chapter Four begins with some politics.

Bishop Stein looked around the landscape. These hills were quite nice, grassy and tree-lined, with a lovely view of distant mountains. The sun was high and bright, but a cool, refreshing breeze rustled his thinning hair. It wouldn’t be a bad place at all for a summer cabin. Unfortunately, the urgency of his visit precluded investigating such possibilities.

He shoved a rock with his foot. He stared after it as it went clattering down into the crater where the Ur Scientia Affiliate had once stood. “This is all that remains?”

“Yes, Your Excellency. It is the clear work of a single, medium-yield Hilbert bomb. Total annihilation of all matter in the blast radius, leaving only slight traces of residual H-type fermions.” Dean Hobart’s face twitched periodically, the only sign of his internal difficulty in deciding whether making a public show of his sorrow at the disaster or his delight at the Bishop’s visit would be more advantageous.

“The Hilbert Atrophy is a fiendish weapon. It violates every law, physical and moral, handed down by our Creator. It should never be used.”

“Yes, Excellency,” said Hobart.

“No!” snapped Stein. “We use it to destroy and contain Divs. When there is no other way to stop a great evil except committing a lesser one, we must act. That is what forgiveness is for.”

Hobart bowed his head. “I apologize, Excellency. You are of course correct.”

Stein continued to gaze away from his companion, out over the crater, allowing him to roll his eyes without being seen. Did the little toady think uncritical agreement would curry Stein’s favor? “And yet the Federation dares claim that we would do this?”

“Um…” said Hobart.

“Speak, Deacon.”

Hobart shuffled uncomfortably. “That is not precisely the case, Excellency. They have claimed only that we provided the weapons and training to the terrorists who made the attack.”

“Fah!” spat Stein. “Utter nonsense.”

“Well, we have given Hilbert weapons to local groups of believers, in case of Div attacks. One of them may have–”

“No,” said Stein. “The Federation did this. They are framing us because they fear an Ur government founded on faith will turn against their godlessness.”

He turned back toward the waiting hopper. “Release a statement saying that the Church condemns such violence and offering all support to the investigation. Say also that our prayers are with the families of all the victims, and of all victims of violence everywhere.”

“At once, Excellency.” Hobart bowed deeply, and then began waddling down to his own groundcar.

Hobart settled into the hopper’s seat. “You are certain he knows nothing?” he asked as the hopper took off.

“Yes, Excellency,” said the pilot, one Odutola Odunaga, ostensibly a novitiate of the Sisters of the Merciful Hand. “He has not looked at a list of the dead. He has no idea the Ur government cleared its loyal citizens out in advance of the attack.”

“Ironic, isn’t it?” asked Stein. “If we’d just waited a little longer, the Federation would have killed its own people for us.”

“Our Lord is known for his mysterious ways.”

“Indeed,” said Stein. “This could work for us, Inquisitor.”

“How so, Excellency?”

“Think about it. Any investigation will reveal that we had no connection to the bombing, because we didn’t. At the same time, it’s erased all evidence that we removed the Original.”

“Hmm,” said Odunaga. A light on her board began to blink. “Personal message for you, Excellency. Very large file — it’s from Cardinal Passerina!”

“I’ll take it on the back screen,” Stein said, and changed seats. It would not do for a mere presbyter to hear such high matters as Passerina no doubt wished to discuss. Besides, Odunaga was an Inquisitor. Her order was answerable only to the highest levels of the Church, not the local bishop. He must never make the mistake of trusting her, no matter how helpful her information and assistance might be.

He pulled on headphones and began the playback. It was a video file, surprisingly. In full three dimensions, no less! The time needed to push a large file through the low-bandwidth EPR wavelengths, and the corresponding expense, meant that virtually all faster-than-light communication was either by text or carried on a ship. Even a Cardinal of the Fleet would not take on such expenses lightly; it must be of immense importance.

Her image appeared, flickering slightly: a small, dark woman with quick, precise movements and a penetrating gaze, robed in red. “Charges for transmission of this message have been billed to you, Bishop. The Exchequer has been instructed not to reimburse you under any circumstances. Perhaps that will impress upon you the importance of the task you have been given, and the magnitude of your failure.”

Stein stared, slack-jawed.

“We have received word that the exorcist squad on Bethel has not only failed to recover the Original, but have been massacred nearly to the last man! Meanwhile, the pirate Mikra is preparing to deliver it to Scientia.” Passerina’s jaw was set and her voice cold. Stein did not know her well — he was hardly prominent enough in the Church to rate regular communication with the woman responsible for the entire Lesser Spiral — but he knew she was furious.

“Do you know how Scientia persuaded him to do it, Stein?” she continued. “They paid him. He offered the Original for sale, and they bought it. Did that strategy occur to you, Stein? Did you consider it, then reject it because there was insufficient opportunity for failure? Do you enjoy wasting the lives of the faithful?”

Stein sank into his seat, very glad that Odunaga was busy flying and couldn’t see him or hear the message.

“You have one final chance, Stein. I will be on Fifth Jerusalem later this month to meet with whoever heads the new government. Bring the Original to me there, and without Scientia or anyone else learning of our involvement. Fail, and I will personally see to it that you are hailed as a martyr within the week.”

Stein closed his eyes. Mikra was doubtless going to rendezvous with the Dammerung, but how could Stein learn where the Dammerung was going to be? And without knowing that, how could he possibly intercept them? His mind whirled, building and discarding plans.

“Odutola, a change of plans. Take me directly to the spaceport; I must return home.” Yes, that much was clear. To keep the Church’s hands clean, he’d need the resources of the Empire. Artaxerxes, not the Church, would be performing the theft.

***

“Have you seen the polls?” Prime Minister Norris asked the moment Koi walked into the room.

“Afraid so, sir.”

“Do they have no gratitude at all? We gave them the vote, and this is how they repay us?”

“Apparently, sir,” said Koi. The latest internal numbers showed bad news for the Manifest Destiny party. The party had pushed through new laws giving Realian soldiers and veterans the vote, expecting them to respond to the party’s advocacy for increased defense spending and a tougher foreign policy. Instead, hardly any were supporting Manifest Destiny, being instead mostly split between the Unionists and Neo-libs. It gave the Unionists enough votes to build and dominate a coalition of their own, and reduce MD to an opposition party. “It seems to mostly be a values and religion thing. Only fourteen percent of enfranchised Realians say the party shares their values, and eighty-three percent perceive us as anti-religious.”

“Religion? Since when do those walking mannequins have religion?”

Koi bristled at the racism, but he managed to keep his anger out of his voice. “Saoshism has been quite popular among Realians for over a century, sir.”

“Saoshism,” the Prime Minister scoffed. “Still, that’s why I called you here, Koi. You’ve always supported Realian suffrage. You understand them. I’m going to need your help on this. How do we get the Realian vote?”

Koi hesitated. “I’m honored, sir, but –”

“There’ll be a Junior Ministership in this for you after we win.”

“I’ll get on it right away,” said Koi.

“Good man. Put a preliminary report together — initial ideas, what support you’ll need, the usual — and have it on my desk tomorrow.” He gestured for Koi to leave.

“Of course, sir. Thank you.” Koi turned to go.

“Oh, and Senator? Don’t rule anything out.”

Fiction Friday: Xenosaga fic, Chapter 3, part 6

Final part of Chapter 3.

Seth jumped over the narrow alleyway and continued across the rooftops. He could only hope that Nadeshiko was alive and creating a sufficient distraction. As he jumped the next, slightly wider street, he was finally able to see the Isolde‘s pad and the six AMWS surrounding it. He was trying to guess the AMWS’ armaments from their configurations when he reached an unexpectedly broad jump and nearly missed it. His hand brushed against the wall, and then he was slipping down it, curving away, falling so very slowly but inevitably.

The fire escape swung suddenly out from its slot in the wall, and Seth struck with a resounding crash that practically vibrated his fillings out. “Ow,” he moaned as he sat up, touching his nose gingerly to make sure it wasn’t broken. He looked around at the providential fire escape, but it offered no explanation as to its timely emergence. “Must have hit a trigger or something scrabbling at the wall,” Seth surmised. There wasn’t any time to wait and ponder; he had to get to the Isolde.

He pulled himself up to the roof and surveyed the spaceport. It looked fairly deserted, except for the soldiers. “Izzy, you have a fix on my location?”

“Gotcha, boss. Catapult?”

“Give me a second, first.” Seth carefully sighted with the zoom scope on his gun. He didn’t recognize two of the models offhand, but one of the AMWS was definitely on the Hyams pattern, a PG-460, it looked like. Not surprising; the Hyams design was cheap and sturdy, and its one major flaw almost never showed up. How often did people use snipers against mecha, anyway?

There it was: the break in the armor under the left arm, necessary for the hinge mechanism, that exposed the fire control. Seth squeezed off a shot; his luck held.

The AMWS began firing in erratic sprays of shells, and the other AMWS moved immediately to a defensive ring facing out, uncertain where the attack was coming from. As soon as their attention was away from the Isolde, Izzy fired Seth’s AMWS from the catapult, straight toward him. Under her control, it fired its maneuvering jets and came to a hover, directly below the roof he was on. Its cockpit slid open, and he jumped in.

The radio crackled to life. “Are you Captain Seth Mikra of the salvager Isolde?” asked a clipped, resonant voice.

“Yeah,” said Seth. “Who are you?”

“I am Father Comry, Dean of the Holy Church of the Fleet Invisible on Bethel. You are in possession of stolen Church property and have attacked Church exorcists in their sacred duty. However, we believe in forgiveness, divine and human. Return what is ours and you and your crew will be permitted to depart this planet peacefully.”

“Hey, I know my rights,” answered Seth. “That ship had no living crewmembers aboard. Salvage laws in these parts say that means everything on her belongs to the first person that finds her–me. Besides, that box isn’t mine to give. I’ve already sold it. If you want it, take it up with Scientia.” Seth grinned, though Comry couldn’t see him. That ought to give them pause. The Church might be able to cow a little planetary government like Bethel into letting them play vigilante, but even they’d think twice about taking on Scientia.

“The Church recognizes a higher law, Mr. Mikra. I am most sorry, but if you do not agree to hand over the box immediately I will have no choice but to order my men to attack.”

“Funny,” said Seth. “I thought exorcists were supposed to fight Divs, not humans.” He fired at the nearest enemy AMWS as he kicked his own sharply upwards, then spun over and fired again before swooping down low. The Church AMWS scattered and returned fire, but Seth was able to dodge. He kept one eye on his thruster fuel; with his AMWS’ legs still out, he needed to be able to stay airborn.

All but one of the AMWS was between him and the Isolde, trying to block him from getting back to her and taking off. Of course he and the ship could go off separately and meet up elsewhere, but that was risky. Without AMWS cover and with its maneuverability restrained by the gravity well, the Isolde‘d be a sitting duck.

Of course, that assumed she’d be without AMWS cover.

“Now!” Seth ordered, and the other two AMWS erupted from the Isolde‘s hangar. The battle was ready to begin in earnest.

“They’re mostly sticking to the ground,” Izzy said. “Typical planet-bound thinking.”

“Right,” said Seth. “Okay, we can’t actually take this many guys in a fair fight, so let’s not make this fair. You two stick to the ground, save your fuel in case we need to escort the Isolde out of the well. I can’t really land anyway, so I’ll stay high and hit anybody that tries to get out of your reach. Go!”

Explosions rippled through the air as missiles swarmed up after Seth. On the ground, his crew had problems of their own, as the exorcists were apparently over their reluctance to get close, and giving the slower, jury-rigged mecha a pounding with short-range weapons intended to wear down armor.

But from his high vantage point Seth could see something the others couldn’t: foot soldiers, working their way from one patch of cover to the next, trying to reach the AMWS battle. That didn’t make any sense. One stray shot and they were dead. Were they suicidal? Sure, they volunteered to fight Divs, but — crap.

“Guys! Get off the ground, now!”

Seth had to hand it to his crew; they both took off instantly, and only then Wehj asked, “What is it?”

“Ooh, good call, boss. Yeah, I’m scanning, and those bayonets are ceramic composites, all right.”

“Huh?” said Vix, dodging a spray of bullets. “Crap!” she shouted as a missile burst a little too close. “Cap’n, our mechs are too slow up here. At least on the ground we have cover!”

“No, he’s right,” said Wehj. “Those are Hilbert Atrophy blades. They’ll cut right through our armor like it isn’t there!”

“Shit,” said Vix. “What do we do?”

“Izzy, where’s our passenger?”

“There’s a human woman behind a shipping container two hundred meters east of you.”

“Right,” said Seth. “Okay, Wehj, I want you to land. Fake thruster trouble. Vix, cover him.”

“But, Captain–” protested Wehj.

“Just do it!”

Wehj spun his mech horizontally, cutting his thrust at the worst possible moment. He fell tumbling to the ground, firing his thruster once more, just in time to land upright. Seth immediately began peppering the ground with laser fire, tearing through the small group of twenty or so ground troops, while Vix intercepted the AMWS trying to catch their wounded prey.

“Wehj, grab her and head for the ship! Izzy, launch as soon as they’re aboard, Vix and I’ll handle escort.”

With the men on the ground dead or forced into hiding, Seth swooped down to join Vix in covering Wehj. Shells thudded against his armor, but it was holding for now. Unfortunately, outnumbered three-to-one as they were, he and Vix could not get into a position to do any significant damage in return.

Nadeshiko, watching the battle from behind her crate, could not take her eyes off the burnt, twitching corpses of the ground soldiers. She saw, in her mind’s eye, the refugee camp’s children, burning and twitching as that strange green AMWS destroyed them. She felt dizzy and sick from exhaustion or horror or both. Keeping her eyes open was getting harder and harder, and her entire body ached. And, to add insult to injury, she’d figured out what she’d torn at the beginning of her fight with the exorcists: the seat of her pants was split wide open.

Wehj’s mech clanked around the crate and then knelt, dropping its hand for Nadeshiko to climb on. Shakily, she clambered aboard and clung. She was aching and embarrassed, and, as the hand swung jerkily through the air as Wehj sprinted back toward the Isolde, she desperately wished she could throw up. She dry-heaved a couple of times, but there was nothing in her stomach.

Seth and Vix attacked furiously, trying to keep a column open for Wehj and Nadeshiko. Unfortunately, that left them fully exposed. Seth took a bad hit to his secondary coolant line that came within a hair of setting off a fuel explosion, and Vix was knocked clean over by a punch when she got too close to one of the enemy.

“You all right?” Seth asked.

Vix’s mech rolled back to its feet and barely avoided a plasma burst. “Yeah. Nasty bump on my head, but I don’t think it’s bleeding.”

“Hurry up, Wehj,” Seth said. “We’re getting hammered!”

“I’m trying, Captain!” Wehj shouted.

“They’ve got my AMWS bay door covered,” said Izzy. “I’m not opening and letting them shoot up my insides!”

“Damn!” Seth considered for a moment, dodging and weaving and trying to get off a clear shot at the AMWS watching the door, but he had three on his tail to shake off first. “There has to be something we can do to get out of here!”

He spun to fire at the AMWS behind him. There was a flicker of green, and the leading of the three craft exploded. A second flicker, and a hole appeared, punched through the torso of one of the other two. It exploded as well.

“What the hell?” said Seth.

In a matter of seconds, five of the enemy AMWS exploded. The last, which had been covering the Isolde, spasmed as a green spike slammed through its torso from behind. It lifted into the air as the tall, insectile green mech to which the spike belonged raised its arm above its head and began rising slowly.

Seth stared, wide-eyed, his knuckles whitening on his controls. “All of you get back into the ship. Now.” His voice was strangled, strained.

“Boss –” Izzy started.

“No,” he said. “Everyone get on board. Izzy, launch immediately. I’ll catch up.”

“But Cap’n –” protested Vix.

“No buts. He’s too fast for your AMWS or the Isolde.” Seth’s eyes narrowed. “Don’t worry. There’s no way I’ll lose this fight.”

His AMWS’ computer beeped. There was a video signal coming in on a public channel. Seth acknowledged.

“Seth Mikra,” said Aser. “I wanted you to see the face of your executioner.” The Hod flung the AMWS it had impaled to the ground, where it exploded. “It is time for you to pay for what you’ve done!”

“What I’ve done?” asked Seth. “What I’ve done? You son of a bitch!” He opened fire, but his target was gone. “What the hell? Nothing can move that fast!”

“My U.R. Hod can,” said Aser, and slashed Seth’s AMWS from behind.

“Shit!” yelped Seth, but fortunately the blows damaged only his armor. “Who the hell are you?”

“My name is Aser,” he said. “I am the Chosen of God.” He laughed as the Hod teleported all around Seth’s AMWS, slashing and stabbing, carefully avoiding critical systems. Seth tried to take evasive actions, to fire whenever the Hod appeared, but no matter how he bobbed and weaved and spun, every one of the Hod’s blows struck, and none of his own.

“Dammit, he’s just playing with me!” shouted Seth over the private channel. “Hurry up and get out of here!”

“No, boss,” said Izzy. “The sweep time on my scanners is faster than yours, I can get a lock before he disappears again!”

“And do what with it? You can’t bring your guns to bear fast enough!”

“No, but you can. I can feed you the sensor data.”

“You have any idea how long it would take to slave my AMWS to you? It wasn’t built for it!” Seth swerved again, firing more or less at random, but Aser flicked back and forth rapidly even between attacks, making him practically impossible to hit.

“So don’t slave it! You’ll know his position a few microseconds earlier; use it to catch him!”

Seth’s armor was taking a major pounding. It was only a matter of time before Aser got bored and went for the final blow. “All right,” he said. “Do it!”

Meanwhile, on the Cygnus, Dasra fed her vision of the battle to Nasatya and Mia.

“Aw, crudnuggets,” said Nasatya. “You’re sure there’s not even an itty-bitty resonance?”

Nothing beyond normal levels.

“Poopy. It’s not going to happen. Aser’s pro’lly gonna kill him.”

Despite orders?

Nasatya began chewing her hair. “It’s, like, seventy percent or so.”

Or so?

“Calvie gets mad when I’m too precise and all. Seventy-four point eight one three one nine percent and rising.”

Seth focused on the sensor scans Izzy was streaming to him, trying to ignore the flickers of green outside, the continual screeching of tortured metal every time Aser sliced off a bit more armor. He pushed his AMWS’ cannon power past all safety limits, ignoring the warnings; he had to take the Hod out with the first shot, or Aser would switch to killing blows immediately after.

He bit his lip, waiting for the precisely right moment — there! He pulled the trigger; a column of lethal red light — air superheated by the laser’s passage — erupted from the barrel of his gun straight for Aser’s current position.

Except that Aser was no longer there.

Seth spun to see the Hod hovering beside him, its spiked arm drawn back to strike the killing blow. “Well, hell,” he said.

Aser, no!

Aser shook his head. “Go away, Dasra. He’s useless to us — he can’t even defend himself! I’m exterminating a pest.”

I’m sorry, Aser. We have our orders. Stop.

“Never!” screamed Aser. “I’ve waited too long to find him again. He dies–” His screaming turned incoherent as Mia’s power poured into his head, channeled there by Dasra. Pain erupted through him, until not even his hate of Seth could carry him through it.

For his own part, Seth had no idea what was happening. U.R. Hod was just hanging there, ready to kill, but not moving. He looked down at his fire control: no missiles, and the rifle was in emergency cool-down after that last blast.

“Boss, come on! Let’s get out of here!” Izzy was half-frantic.

“Right,” said Seth. He shook his head. “Right! Launch, already! I’ll fly escort until we’re well out of this hole.”

The Isolde fled into the sky, flanked by Seth and Vix’s AMWS.

This is the end of Chapter 3, which means it’s time for music!

I’m actually holding back Nadeshiko’s theme, because the right moment for it is rather later.

The Bethel spaceport definitely has a theme, though, one of my favorite tracks from the Xenogears soundtrack.

And then once it becomes a more hostile place due to the Church showing up, that gets a slightly harder version.

And lastly we get the music for the fight between Seth and Aser. It’s stylistically jarring, violent, discordant, fast-paced, and bizarre, yet also a hymn. It’s Aser through and through, and one of the first character themes I picked way back when I first started thinking about this a decade ago.

Fiction Friday: Xenosaga fic, Chapter 3, part 6

Sorry about having two weeks in a row of this story. I just can’t fiction this week. Also, TW, use of ableist slurs by a character.

Seth coughed and massaged his neck. “Holy shit, you’re fast,” he said.

“Yes. Besides, I’m not the only one who’s unarmed.”

“Actually, you are.” Seth reached into the pocket of his jacket and withdrew a small blaster pistol.

“That’s hardly going to do much against a soldier with body armor, let alone an AMWS,” said Nadeshiko.

Seth looked down at the blaster in mock shock. “You’re right! Well, guess we’d better give up, then.”

“All right, what’s the secret?”

Seth smiled and began pulling more things out of his jacket’s seemingly endless supply of pockets — a stock with built-in powerpack, a collapsible barrel, a scope — and several very fast and highly illegal modular modifications to the pistol later, he’d assembled them into a rifle.

“Neat trick,” said Nadeshiko.

Seth shrugged. “Made it years ago. Figured I’d need it sooner or later. Anyway, no matter how fast you can move, you’re still not going to be able to do anything through body armor.”

“No, but I can give you a distraction so you can slip by them. Or were you planning to fight your way through a squad of trained soldiers and multiple AMWS?”

“Well… yes. If necessary.”

“Just hang back until the panic starts, all right?”

Seth sighed. “All right. Just don’t get killed, okay?”

Nadeshiko started to smile. Was Captain Jerk actually concerned about her?

“I mean, I don’t get paid if you’re dead.”

“Right,” she said. She should have known. “Let’s go.”

***

Nadeshiko walked with every appearance of calm right through the middle of a group of men with bayoneted rifles.

“Stop!” one of them called. “This area is off-limits.”

She blinked at him. “But, I’m supposed to be leaving today!”

“No one in or out until we get our man.”

“You’re not police, though. Who are you? What right do you have to stop me?”

The man regarded Nadeshiko with the caliber of open, dismissive contempt only an armed bully is capable of displaying. “Turn back.”

“Get out of my way!” she snapped, and tried to push past him. He shoved her back with his rifle, and another of the men grabbed her arms, pinning them behind her.

The man who had spoken, apparently their leader, raised his rifle. “You can turn around and leave the way you came, or you can not leave at all. Your choice.”

Nadeshiko sighed and relaxed. The man holding her, unfortunately, didn’t. That meant she’d have to do this the hard way. And when she was already tired, too!

She jackknifed forward, slamming the man holding her arms into the man in front of her. As she did, she heard something in her arms crack sickeningly, but she had all pain blocked. She slithered out of his grip and straightened, both arms flopping uselessly at her sides, broken.

“God help us, she’s mad!” shouted the leader, struggle to disentangle himself from his inverted compatriot.

Nadeshiko rolled her shoulders and snapped her no-longer broken arms into a defensive stance. She could almost hear old Master Rajeesh repeating the maxims of self-defense: Never fight when you can run. Never provoke when you can avoid. Control your own will, and you need never impose it on another. Control your own will, and none can impose theirs. “Sorry, Master,” she thought. “I have to do something.”

“Not mad!” shouted the leader, finally getting to his feet. “Mizrahi! Don’t let her get close, just shoot her!”

Time slowed as Nadeshiko squeezed her adrenal glands. Nearly dry; Viri had been right about her needing time off. She wouldn’t be able to keep up peak performance for more than a couple of minutes in her current state.

She’d never fought people who seriously wanted to hurt her before. But no matter; simply run down the list. First, eliminate the distractions. Nadeshiko ran herself through the biofeedback routines that years of training had made as natural as walking. An army of nanomachines spread through all the tissues of her body responded catalyzing some reactions and inhibiting others, suppressing a brain sector or accelerating reuptake of a neurotransmitter. Pain, physical and emotional, vanished. Hunger, thirst, tiredness; all were eliminated. Her very self submerged; there remained only objectives, capabilities, and analysis.

Masters of the Mizrahi Arts were often called fighting machines. This was not inaccurate. The error was in placing the emphasis on machines. Every human is already a machine. Nadeshiko simply knew how to turn off the parts unrelated to fighting.

Time was still moving glacially. One or two of the other men hesitantly raised their rifles, but they were obviously not prepared to shoot. Good. That meant if she took out the leader, she was almost certain to survive. Side kick, round kick — tearing noise. Had she injured something? Everything still seemed to work, so she lunged forward for a rapid one-two punch and down the leader went. Low-profile armor was great against beam weapons and bullets, but it couldn’t handle being struck by a broad surface like a foot. And all the armor in the world couldn’t protect against a punch to the face without a helmet.

She heard someone stepping up behind her, and lashed out with a backward punch. It impacted hard, right in his face. She’d had to tear every tendon in her elbow wide open, but no matter. Toss the arm forward, into more or less the right position, and the nanomachines repaired the injury.

She dodged, kicked, and punched, taking the half-dozen men down one at a time, letting them get in each other’s way. Her strength and speed were perfectly within the normal range for a young woman of her build and admittedly extensive physical training, but her rapid healing and the flexibility it gave her made her almost impossible to predict.

Even a Mizrahi Master might have been hard pressed to defeat six trained warriors at once, but the men Nadeshiko was fighting had trained to fight Divs. Monsters and demons in hideous forms they could handle, but a pretty young woman whose limbs kept bending the wrong way, who could move like a graceful dancer or a corpse on strings, who kept breaking her own bones and didn’t care? That was beyond their experience. Scientia did not go to war, and the students of the Mizrahi Arts learned self-control and avoiding conflict long before they learned to use their abilities to fight. There was neither opportunity nor demand to learn to fight Mizrahi, and so these men were utterly unable to respond.

The last man standing dropped his gun and ran. Nadeshiko took three steps after him, then stopped. Exhaustion was pulling at her body. She’d pushed herself too far; the deep ache in her muscles meant both that the nanomachines were no longer blocking her pain sensations and that they were too busy to repair the smaller tears. By this point, they were probably consuming the muscle to keep themselves alive. She needed water, rest, and food, very soon and in that order, or she was going to pass out.

But there was something else to do first. Quickly she checked the half-dozen men she’d knocked out. No contusions or signs of concussion; good. They were all breathing, and their pulses were steady. Now to get away from here before somebody less squeamish shot her from a distance. The fleeing man had run away from the spaceport, so that was the direction from which his friends were most likely to come. That meant her best bet was to head toward the spaceport.

So… yeah. I’ll get more into it later in the story, but Nadeshiko is a member of a very small ethnic group within the nation-state of Scientia, the Mizrahi, who share a common ancestor about 500 years ago and are born with curative nanomachines–a technology which was fairly commonplace in the original games and used to justify having healing “spells” in an SF setting–swarming through their bodies, continually repairing them. This has a number of advantages, obviously, such as resistance to disease, incredibly rapid recovery from injury, and vastly extended lifespans. The downside is that their metabolisms are through the roof, and if they don’t get enough rest or food, they start suffering fast. The Mizrahi have their own martial art which is based on the surprising things you can do when you don’t particularly care about things like ripped tendons and broken bones, and which also involves using biofeedback techniques to “trick” the nanomachines into doing things like increasing or decreasing the outputs of particular glands, thus theoretically allowing a degree of emotional control impossible for other people. Which is what I meant by saying that I thought later sections would solve what looked initially like standard “calm boy, emotional girl” garbage–it really is just that Nadeshiko is introduced on a terrible day, normally she’s got a great deal of awareness of and control over her emotional states and moods. While Seth… very much does not, since he’s got a bit of Hot Blooded Shonen Protagonist in his DNA.

Next part is the last of this chapter.

Fiction Friday: Xenosaga fic, Chapter 3, part 5

The My Little Po-Mo vol. 3 Kickstarter is at 781! We have four days to raise $219 more! Any help–backing of course, but also spreading the link around–is massively appreciated!

Dean Comry was not a theologian. Oh, he had his training, certainly, but as the head of the Fleet Church on Bethel he was not much called to ponder the great questions. Mostly, he just served as priest of the large church in the capital, signed forms his secretary gave him, met the occasional new priest, or performed some ceremony or other that required his presence. He could rattle off the differences in doctrine and practice that led the Church to divide in two during the Dark Ages, but could not explain the arguments or the logic, could not say why the Fleet Church was right and the Ormus Church wrong. He simply knew that that was so. Explaining the deeper, core truths of the faith in clear, powerful, easy to understand language; that was his gift. He was known for his excellent sermons, for his charity work, for his piety.

He was most certainly not a warrior. Oh, he trained once a month with an exorcist team, a group of soldiers and AMWS pilots who wielded their weapons and their faith against attacks by the demonic Divs, but Bethel had not seen such an attack in his lifetime, and hopefully never would.

As neither a warrior nor a theologian, he was thus a terrible pick for what Bishop Stein wanted him to do. He read the message again, hoping that he might have misread it before, but it was clear: “Salvager Isolde has put up for sale a sealed container of stolen Church property. The contents are of great temporal value, but their spiritual import is greater still. Lead your exorcists to reclaim it, and hold it for my arrival. Use any means necessary to acquire it. Do not attempt to open it.”

There was nothing for it; he would have to do it. It took him a few moments to remember how to summon his exorcists at other than scheduled time, but soon enough the signal was out. He only hoped that there would be a way to settle it without anyone getting hurt.

***

Seth was busy wolfing down his lunch — flavorless, but blessedly containing neither beans nor cultured yeast — when his communicator buzzed. He pulled it out of his pocket, continuing to shovel mystery meat in thin sauce and rice into his mouth as he read the message.

As he continued to read, his eating slowed and a smile spread across his face. The contents of his box were valuable, all right. If the message Izzy had just forwarded to him was legit, Scientia was willing to pay more than ten times his asking price, enough to fully restock the Isolde, pay off all the back pay he owed the crew, and wipe out half his debt in one fell swoop. Not only that, but they were offering the best bonus he’d ever seen for delivering it himself and on time: a complete servicing and refit of the Isolde, free!

He permitted himself to daydream for a moment of what he might be able to do with Scientia-built parts. A Z.R. Engine to replace the hundred-year-old tokomak, and he’d never need fuel again. Real, high-end armaments for his AMWS. Maybe even a faster core for Izzy, if he could figure out a way to get it without their techs noticing her. Yes, this was as good a deal as he could hope for. Somebody else might offer more money, but it wasn’t worth waiting for if it meant missing out on the refit.

Seth checked the contract attached to the message. It was all pretty standard stuff, the usual sale, delivery, and nondisclosure agreements. They had one weird clause, that they wanted him to bring along an observer as a passenger to guarantee the safety of the cargo. He supposed that made sense if they were willing to pay this much for it, and though normally he’d refuse to risk someone he didn’t trust discovering Izzy, he’d take that chance for a deal like this. For the money they were offering, he’d stuff his hold with them.

They had a specific observer in mind, of course. A woman named Kodesh. They had some identifying information attached — he stopped and his smile vanished when he saw Nadeshiko’s picture.

“That’s it,” he said. “I give up. The universe hates me.”

“Hates olive us,” hiccupped the drunk at the next table. “Yer notso spessul.”

***

Nadeshiko lay back on her bed and flicked the remote for her holo. She set it to project two-dee on the ceiling, not wanting to immerse in much of anything right now, and began flipping through the channels.

There was, of course, nothing on. Children’s programs, several religious stations (one each for the two big churches and several for denominations unique to Bethel), fourteen soap operas, and some sort of a sport that appeared to involve an enormous number of mecha trying to destroy each other while attempting to roll a heavily armed, but apparently immobile, mech through a constantly moving goal. Judging by the scoreboard, there were more than a dozen teams. If that was a scoreboard — the Edgetown Zebrankies appeared to have some sort of a waterfowl listed next to their name, in lieu of a number.

She gave up trying to understand the sport, and flipped to another channel. “…police have no suspects at this time,” said the news announcer. “Returning to our top story this afternoon, we have new information regarding the destruction of the Great Desert refugee camp.”

Nadeshiko bolted upright and switched the display to the wall.

“Military sources are reporting that the camp was destroyed by a rogue AMWS of unknown origin. After a brief but fierce firefight, the attacker was destroyed.”

Nadeshiko stared in horror as grainy footage of U.R. Hod vanishing in the explosion of a military AMWS played. She barely saw the mecha; underneath them, the camp was burning, ruined. Large portions of it were simply gone, glassy craters marking where military-caliber AMWS reactors had been destroyed.

“Rescue teams continue to search for survivors, but it is believe highly unlikely that anyone survived the attack.”

All day, Nadeshiko had been trying not to cry. No longer. The sobs that came ripping up through her seemed to want to claw out her chest on the way up. No tears flowed, but she fell back onto her bed, curled up and bawled. She had known, known, that lives would be lost if she left the camp. She’d let Viri argue her down, and now he was dead.

The holo was buzzing and the urgent message warning was blinking across the bottom. She had to get a grip on herself. She had to be strong. Was this how a master of the Mizrahi Arts behaved? Weeping and being irrational when there was work to be done? She took a moment and concentrated, dissolving her pain at the chemical level. It took longer than it should have; she really was running herself down, her system having to work much harder than usual just to keep her moving and conscious. There just weren’t enough nanites to completely transform the neurotransmitters filling her brain with loss into normal, functional, energetic activity. The best she seemed to be able to achieve was numb. But she could work while numb; it would do.

She played the message. It was brief: an official request from the Office of the Director-Captain for her to tag along with some untrustworthy deliveryman named Mikra to make sure he didn’t try to open his cargo. Well, why not? There was nothing for her here on Bethel anymore.

She began to pack. If he accepted the delivery, Mikra would have to leave almost immediately. Fortunately, she didn’t own much; a view changes of clothes, a few million books and vids in a plastic-coated card, a second card with a detailed medical library, and the reader for the cards half-filled a small knapsack, leaving ample room for first aid kit and her folding exercise mat. Everything else in her apartment, the furniture and bedding and dishes, had come with the place. Whoever next came here from Scientia would take it over and make it theirs.

An incoming call buzzed for her attention, and she opened it.

“Hi,” said the jerk who’d (barely) driven her back from the refugee camp. “You ready?”

She stared. “You’ve got to be kidding me. You’re Mikra?”

“The very same,” Seth said, with a mocking little half bow. “Looks like I’m going to have a new career of giving you rides.”

“Wonderful.”

“So, you ready?” Seth asked.

“Let’s get this over with,” she said.

“Wow, better contain some of that enthusiasm, doc,” said Seth. “Any friendlier, and I might freeze to death.”

Nadeshiko closed her eyes and sighed. “You have no idea what I’ve been through today,” she managed to squeeze out through her teeth. “I have nothing left for being friendly, and even less for being annoyed. So let’s do the job in front of us with as little talking as possible, okay? Peace?”

“Hey, I’m perfectly fine with a stony silence,” said Seth. “Don’t go doing me any favors.” He walked out the door.

Nadeshiko stifled a cry of frustration and stalked out after him. Peace offer rescinded: he really was just a jerk.

Seth shoved his hands in his pockets and walked toward the spaceport, glancing back only once to make sure Nadeshiko was following. This wasn’t going to be a fun trip at all, but maybe that was a good thing. The more she disliked him, the easier it would be to keep her from poking around the ship. He was starting to regret being so hasty in taking this deal; no matter how good the money was, the risk of somebody discovering Izzy was going to keep him on edge until the Dammerung was far behind them.

His communicator buzzed. “Yeah?”

“Boss, it’s me,” said Izzy. “There’re AMWS units in the spaceport, surrounding me, and foot soldiers guarding the approaches to the landing pads. I don’t know who they are, but nobody’s shooting at them, so they’re either government or have a really good excuse. They’re demanding we hand over your box.”

“Shit,” said Seth, stopping in his tracks. “Okay, get the crew to their AMWS and ready to launch on a moment’s notice. I’ll be there as fast as I can. In the meantime, if anybody starts shooting, you hit space as fast as you can, got it? We’ll find a way to meet you out by the fifth planet.”

“Got it, boss. Good luck.”

“You too.”

Nadeshiko came up behind Seth. “What’s going on?”

“Nothing,” he said. “Listen, go back to your apartment. I’ll be back for you in a little bit.”

“What’s going on?” she repeated.

“Just a bit of a hassle,” Seth answered. “Go back and wait, all right?”

“I’m supposed to be observing you. How do I know you’re not trying to pull a bait-and-switch on us?”

Seth sighed. “All right, you really want to know? Somebody’s surrounded my ship with AMWS and infantry, and I’m going to try to get past them and onto my own AMWS.”

“Wow,” said Nadeshiko. “That’s incredibly, suicidally stupid.”

“Thanks,” said Seth. “Now, since you’re not suicidally stupid, you’re going back to your apartment, right?”

“Nope. The stupid part is trying to get rid of half your fighting force.”

“Okay, seriously, doc. You’re unarmed and –” Before Seth could finish the next syllable, the world spun crazily. He was suddenly facing the other way, with his arm twisted painfully behind him and Nadeshiko’s arm wrapped around his neck, slowly choking off his air. A moment later, she spun him free.

“You enjoyed that!” he wheezed, blinking dark spots out of his vision.

“Yes. Yes I did.”

Sigh. You have no idea how much worse the Seth-Nadeshiko dynamic was before I revised. And while I like Nadeshiko kicking Seth’s ass at the end there, and it’s important for setting up the next sequence, there are shades of Strong Independent Woman ™ to it. I think the next bit helps with that.

Also there’s this whole thing of Nadeshiko struggling to control her emotions that’s easily readable as a nasty misogynistic stereotype of women being irrational and emotional. All I can say is (1) she’s actually controlling her emotions too much here, and is going to pay for it later, and (2) she’s really, really not the character for whom self-control and emotional outbursts are going to be an issue.

But mostly… yeah, there’s some stuff here that if I could go back and redo everything from scratch, I’d change dramatically, but it’s too much, and I like some of the directions all this is eventually going enough that I’m going to try to work through the problematic bits, fix them up as much as I can, and acknowledge them down here in comments.

Fiction Friday: Xenosaga fic, Chapter 3, part 4

The My Little Po-Mo vol. 3 Kickstarter is hanging at $491! The person who bumps it over $500 gets special bonus acknowledgment on the blog and in the book!

Huh, he wonders. Why hasn’t today’s post shown up on Tumblr yet? Oh–because I utterly failed to actually queue anything.

Sorry all!


Finally, after entire tens of minutes of sweltering heat crawling across the bumpy desert roads, Seth reached the refugee camp. As he pulled up to the gate, he saw someone standing by it, silhouetted in the sun, a tall, slender woman in a long, open coat. He slowed as he approached the gate, and a young soldier waved him through.

Seth pulled up next to the woman, reached across the seat and opened the door facing her. “I’m here to deliver medical supplies?” he said.

Nadeshiko climbed into the truck’s cab and pointed down a dirt path that wound between concrete buildings and tents. “Right down there,” she said. “Wish you’d gotten here earlier.”

“Contract said today,” Seth answered, as he drove slowly down the narrow, twisty path.

“I know. It’s not your fault, I’ve just had a bad day. We could have used some of those nanomachines.”

“Something going around the camp?” he asked.

“Don’t worry,” she said. “You’re not at risk, unless you’ve got an immune disorder you haven’t mentioned.”

Seth shook his head. He looked at the rows and rows of tents extending out from the road in both directions. Here and there someone sat outside, watching impassively as he drove past, but most of the refugees and workers must have been inside. There were tents for thousands. “What are all these people refugees from, anyway?”

Nadeshiko’s big brown eyes widened. “You don’t know about the war?”

“What war?”

“What war. The Federation-Artaxerxes War!”

“Of course,” said Seth. “But that was almost five years ago. Shouldn’t they have found somewhere to go by now?”

Nadeshiko stared at Seth. “They’re refugees from the second Federation-Artaxerxes War, not the third.”

“Fifteen years? Why haven’t they gone anywhere?”

“They’re not allowed to,” Nadeshiko said quietly. “The government is afraid of the health risks, so they keep them separate. This is as much a prison as a refugee camp.”

Seth pulled up outside the low concrete storage shed. He walked around to the back of the truck and pulled out the dolly. He unfolded its handle and left it hovering next to the truck as he climbed up and lifted out the first canister.

“It’s not fair!” said Nadeshiko suddenly. “They’re human beings. They don’t deserve to be treated like this!”

“Most of the time,” Seth answered, loading the canister onto the dolly, “what you deserve and what happens don’t have much to do with each other.”

“That damn Federation ship that crashed leaked coolant into their water supply. They’ve all got immune damage. The Bethel government keeps them here because they’re an epidemic risk, and what happens? They get epidemics!”

“Where’s this go?” asked Seth.

“Over there, in the back corner,” she said, pointing. “There were eleven thousand of them when they first came here. Now there’s only three hundred. They could resettle each family in a different town, no serious epidemic risk at all. But nobody cares enough to spend the money.”

Seth followed her directions, keeping quiet while she ranted.

“And the Federation? It’s their fault everyone’s sick, but do they come in and help? No!”

“Didn’t they send these supplies?” Sometimes Seth hated the pedantic streak that made him say things like that, but he supposed her rant would continue until she was done whether he said something or not.

“Oh, sure,” said Nadeshiko. “Stopgap measures. Reparative nanomachines and generalized drugs for the diseases they catch are cheaper than the scanners and self-replicating nanomachines we’d need to tailor a permanent cure to each person. Nobody wants that money coming out of their budget this year; they’d rather spend three times that amount over fifteen years.” She was working up a good, solid mad, like she hadn’t in years. Screw hormonal control and neurotransmitter manipulation. She wanted to scream, so she was going to scream.

“So we have to sit here while people die all around us, helpless to do anything about it, waiting for your tiny little Federation handouts so that we can keep one or two of them alive a few more days, and nobody else cares!”

She went on ranting while Seth unloaded the supplies. She railed at the Bethel government for ignoring its weakest citizens, at the Ormus and Fleet churches for helping with food but no money or medical equipment, at the Federation for ignoring its responsibility, and at the universe for not caring.

Finally, Seth was done. Wordlessly, he handed over the work order for her to sign. Once she was done, he got back into the truck and started it up.

The passenger-side door opened, and Nadeshiko got in.

“What the hell are you doing?” demanded Seth.

“Coming with you. You’re headed back to town, right?”

“Uh-uh,” said Seth. “I’m no taxi. Find your own ride.”

“My boss said to ride back with you,” said Nadeshiko. “So, I’m riding back with you.”

“I never agreed to this!”

“Look, it’s not like going back is going to be any more difficult with me along. It doesn’t cost you anything.”

“It costs me my precious alone time.”

Nadeshiko sighed. “Look, I know I’ve been talking at you for the last twenty minutes. I’m sorry. I had a really bad day, like I said, and you were handy. But hitching across the desert is really dangerous. I could really use the help.”

Seth rolled his eyes. “Fine, but you’re paying half the truck rental.”

“Thank you,” said Nadeshiko.

Seth drove the truck back to the gate, where the same guard searched carefully to make sure no refugees were hiding in the truck. Soon, they were back out on the road.

***

Aser laughed and laughed as he dodged the attacks of the military AMWS surrounding him. “Sting, sting, my little bees!” he crowed. “You cannot touch me. All you have one is your death.” The U.R. Hod flickered back and forth rapidly in the air above the refugee camp, until it appeared there were dozens of insectile green AMWS surrounding the four military mecha, instead of the other way around.

Growing bored with his playthings, Aser returned to strafing the ground, smashing tents and buildings, picking up the sick and injured and tossing them hundreds of feet into the air like so much screaming, squirming confetti.

Below, Dr. Viri lay pinned beneath the wreckage of the collapsed main infirmary. He screamed at the sky, at the world gone mad. “Damn you, why? Who are you? What do you want?” he shrieked.

“Come out, come out, wherever you are,” Aser taunted through the Hod’s external speaker. “You remember me, don’t you?” His jovial tone shifted, thinned to reveal the acid underneath. “I remember you. Now come out! Or do these people mean so little to you?” He pounced suddenly on one of the military mecha from behind and tore its limbs off, then smashed the torso into the ground. He teleported upward as its explosion tore through the remains of the camp. “Aw. It seems you really aren’t here. Or I killed you too quickly. Either way, it looks like time to wrap up my game.” He giggled as he tore through another AMWS as if it was made of foil.

Aser! What are you doing?

“Playing,” he told Dasra. “What do you want?”

You’re killing innocents! Why?

Aser shrugged. “They fly higher than hardened criminals when you toss them?” He punctuated his claim by snatching up a handful of refugees and throwing them into the path of a pursuing AMWS.

Stop this at once!

“That’s not a very good joke. You need to work on your delivery.”

Aser. You must return immediately. Dasra fed him a location a couple of lightyears away in the direction of Artaxerxes.

“Oh, all right,” Aser sighed.

A fraction of a second later, the U.R. Hod was in space, six light-hours from Bethel’s sun. Aser paused to get his bearings, fixing the location he needed firmly in his mind. A moment later, he was at the rendezvous point.

It was only a matter of seconds before the Cygnus sailed into view. It was a majestic ship, long and sleek and shining silver. The great tree-and-cross of Ormus ran half its length, picked out in shining green and gold; from the base of the cross at the rear of the ship, two wing-like fins rose, one on either side. It was not the Dammerung by any means, but nonetheless served as home for over a hundred people and the heart of the Orthodox Ormus Church of the Messiah, one of the two great faiths of modern mankind.

Aser hated going home. His family, such as they were, didn’t like it much better, especially his idiot brother. But if he didn’t come, Dasra would nag and nag until he did.

He flicked himself into AMWS Bay Three, where the U.R.s were kept. He scanned the room quickly, trying to see who was already here. Dasra and Nasatya, of course; they rarely left. Calvin, unfortunately, but likewise unsurprisingly; ever since he took over command of the Knights, he’d spent most of his time behind the scenes. And–

Searing pain and pleasure tore through him, hateful love and ecstatic agony. Every nerve in his body shrieked and sang as he jerked and thrashed, groaning wordlessly.

As quickly as it began, it stopped. “Hey, handsome,” said Mia over U.R. Hod‘s radio.

“Mia,” Aser gasped. “Remind me why I haven’t killed you yet?”

“Aw, you know you love me, baby.”

Enough, you two. Calvin and the Primus will be here soon. They want the three of us to remain in our U.R. units, as they have tasks for us immediately following the meeting.

The door to the ship opened, and a small, skinny, brown-skinned teenaged girl with her hair dyed in elaborate, multicolored streaks and swirls entered. Like the other monks and nuns of the Knights of the Swan, she wore a form-fitting uniform decorated with the winged Tree of Life symbol topped by a crossed pair of swords. As one of the elite, she had no rank insignia, and the uniform was in her personal colors instead of the usual black with green and gold trim. In Nasatya’s case, that meant a vivid, eye-searing hot pink.

“Hi, everybody!” she effused. “What’s up?”

“I’d like to know that myself,” said Aser.

“I know why I’m here,” Mia said smugly. “Can’t speak for the rest of you.”

“Eww,” said Nasatya.

The doors opened again, and Calvin entered. Immediately behind him came a tall, broad man. His face was heavily lined and his beard and hair were white, but his back was straight and his eyes were sharp. He moved slowly but confidently, with the air of a man who had no need of hurry, and wished to give any potential obstacles time to flee before he arrived.

He wore ornate white robes with green and gold trim and a white skullcap. His short cloak was decorated with golden discs bearing the Ormus cross, connected by golden links in the shape of three intertwining wings. Tradition held that the design of the Primus’ vestments dated back to the days of Lost Jerusalem, though no records survived of humanity’s birthplace. The records were unnecessary; the Primus believed they were that ancient, and wore them with the conviction that they symbolized his succession in an unbroken chain of leaders back to the earliest dawn era, when God walked among men and gave them His treasures.

“Your Holiness,” said Calvin, bowing, “the Knights you requested are here.”

“Indeed, hegumen,” said the Primus. “You may instruct them.”

Calvin nodded. “His Holiness has revealed to me my error in sending you unprepared, Aser. He has learned of your actions on Bethel through Dasra, but you are not to be punished. It is my own fault in sending you without making absolutely clear that you understood: Seth Mikra is to be tested, not killed.”

“Not killed yet,” said Aser.

“Not killed at all,” said the Primus. “Not until and unless I and I alone give the order. We need him. He is the only candidate we have ever found.”

“Finding another’ll be hard,” said Nasatya. “There’ll only be, like, one in a hojillion.”

The Primus and Calvin turned to stare at her.

“What? Each of us is, whatev, one of the n-state roots of a twelve-dimensional beta-type personality manifold projected onto a nine-dimensional space. There’s, dunno, a bazillion years of psychometrics that says the combination for the last one is gonna be almost impossible to find.”

They continued to stare.

You’ve worked out a formula for predicting the Chosen?

“Uh, yeah, sis. Only, like, four years ago. What, I thought it was totally obvious! You mean you guys didn’t know about it?”

After another long pause, the Primus cleared his throat. “We shall discuss this… manifold of yours later, Nasatya. Aser, you are to test Mikra. Go.”

“I shall be most testy, Your Emptiness.” Aser vanished.

The Primus glanced around the room. “Nasatya, Dasra, Mia. You know what to do.”

Yes, Your Holiness, said Dasra.

The Primus exited the room and Calvin let out a long breath. He sank to his knees and bowed his head. “Let us pray. Mia, if you would assist me.”

“Gladly, sweetie,” she answered.

“Eww, again,” said Nasatya. She clambered up the leg of her U.R. unit and into the cockpit. Sealing it around her, she cranked up the music and blanked the external views. She closed her eyes and cast forward, trying to see where Aser was going and what he was going to do.

“I am sorry, Lord,” whispered Calvin as searing pain washed through him. “I wished in my heart for this unbeliever to die. Better that then he sully the Lost Road with legs that have never knelt to You. I know now I was wrong, because the Primus has said I was wrong.” He paused a moment, struggling to keep his breathing under control, not let the agony in his filthy, heavy, weak body touch the light of his soul. “But, Lord, I am finding it hard to believe. Please, help me trust in the one You have chosen as Primus in Your perfect wisdom.”

Mia hardly noticed Calvin as she pushed the pain into him. Her eyes were wide and unfocused, her face flushed, and she was panting hard as she exerted her power, streaming energy from the mysterious power source at the heart of her U.R. unit through her own body and into Calvin’s. She was quite sure that Calvin knew what using her power did to her. She liked to think it made him feel dirtier. That was what he wanted, after all, to feel like a sinner and be punished for it, so that he could be free to do what was necessary.

Xenosaga fic, chapter 3, part 3

I wanted to get more of Ghost’s story done, but yesterday didn’t at all work as planned. I meant to finish the next Near-Apocalypse article, the final My Little Po-Mo, and today’s post. Instead I got more and more distractible and tired as the day wore on, so it got to be 8 p.m. and I was still only 80% through the MLP, struggling to force my way through, and I just couldn’t. So I gave up and played STO the rest of the evening, so you get another chunk of the Xenosaga. Click the “der wanderer…” tag if you forgot where we left off. (Tumblr users and possibly people on feeds, you’ll have to click through to the blog first.)

“Daaaaasraaaa,” called Aser. “Ohhh Daaasraaa. Dasra!” Damn it, that girl was never around when he needed her. He’d made it to the benighted little planet his prey was on in five hops. One more had taken him to the large desert that was the one part of the planet flat enough to build a spaceport in. Somewhere in this ridiculous capital, his quarry was trying to sell the Primus’ shiny new toy–and Dasra wasn’t around to tell Aser where!

“Ah well,” he said. “I suppose I’ll just have to check the usual places for spacers to spend their time.” He flew the UR Hod overland to the spaceport, looking for somewhere to dock it.

Just outside the spaceport, Seth’s crew finally managed to find an open bar. It was local mid-morning, so most places were closed; fortunately, this close to the spaceport, there were enough offworlders running on different clocks to fill one bar.

“I’m not sure I like the looks of this place,” said Wehj.

Vix looked around. The dim, smoky interior of the bar was half-filled with a mix of spacers in a wide variety of dress and local alcoholics getting an early start. The locals, just like everybody she’d seen on the streets outside, seemed to dress in nothing but loose brown and rust, with scarves and hoods they had to pull aside in order to drink. The bar was extremely bare — unpadded seats, exposed pipes in the ceiling, everything made of some dark, hard stone. Nothing was clean. “It looks perfect,” she said.

“Are you serious?”

“Absolutely,” said Vix. “Weren’t you looking around outside? We passed four different churches on the way here. Bethelians are clearly a spiritual people, which means their booze is going to suck.”

“Then why are we bothering?”

“Poor, naïve, foolish boy,” Vix teased, “don’t you get it? On a planet with good booze, you find the best in the best bars. On a planet with bad booze, you find the least bad in the worst bars. It’s just how it works.”

“If you say so…” said Wehj. They sat at a table and a surly-looking waitress silently brought them dirty mugs full of pale-brown liquid. “Um…” said Wehj.

“What, were you expecting a wine list?” asked Vix. “Drink it. It’s been long enough.”

Wehj sighed and took a sip. “Gah!” he said. “You could strip paint with this.”

“Bye-bye, brain cells!” said Vix, and downed half her mug at a gulp. “Ah,” she sighed. “Blessed boozehol. Mommy missed you.”

Wehj took another sip. “Okay, it’s a little strong, but it’s not bad.”

“There, you see? Told you.”

About twenty minutes later, a man entered the bar. “Hey, check it out,” said Wehj. “He doesn’t look like a local.”

Vix half-turned to look at the entrance. The man was tall and gangly, with prominent elbows. He was blonde and pale, and wore a form-fitting green jumpsuit that left his arms bare. A large symbol on the jumpsuit’s chest, an inverted cross topped by a spreading tree and flanked by stylized wings, marked him as an Ormus monk. A pair of crossed swords above the tree might have indicated his order, but Vix wasn’t sure. “A monk,” she said. “Not the kind of guy you expect to come into a bar like this.”

“I don’t like the looks of him,” Wehj whispered.

Vix had to agree. There was a strange look in his eyes, like he was laughing at a private joke at everyone else’s expense. He moved wrong, too. He was unnaturally still, mostly, and when he did move, it was suddenly, swiftly, and precisely, almost mechanical. She considered the possibility that he might be some kind of Realian, then discarded it. He wasn’t pretty enough to be artificial.

“I’m looking for the crew of the Isolde,” he said. “They have something I wish to buy.”

Wehj shook his head at Vix, but she ignored him. “I’m the pilot of the Isolde. Pull up a chair.”

He walked over to them with swift small steps. “I prefer to stand.” The corner of his mouth twitched as if he were struggling to keep from laughing, and Wehj shivered.

“We can’t sell you anything ourselves, but the captain should be back from his delivery in an hour or two. You can talk to him then.”

“The captain…” said Aser, rolling the words in his mouth, tasting them. “Where has he gone?”

“None of your business, is it?” Vix appeared utterly nonchalant, but alarm bells were ringing in her head. Something told her that she was speaking to a killer.

Anger flashed briefly across Aser’s face, to be replaced by a broad smile that didn’t touch his eyes.

“Of course, of course! The legendary privacy and independence of free traders. Mustn’t tread on that.” He laughed a little too long. “Well, if you could inform your captain that a potential buyer wishes to speak with him, I will return in the afternoon.” He turned on his heel and walked out of the bar.

Vix looked down at her cup. “I’ve lost my taste for booze,” she said. “Come on, let’s go find some lunch, then go back to the ship and wait for the captain. Soon as he gets back from the refugee camp, we should leave. Go to Ur-Chaldis or something, wait for buyers there.”

“Yeah,” said Wehj. “I don’t want to be on the same planet when this guy comes looking for us.”

The two walked out of the bar. As soon as they turned the corner, Aser stepped out of the alleyway and reentered the bar.

“Now!” he said. “Who wants to tell me what they said after I left?”

A few pairs of eyes looked up at him, then returned to their drinks.

“I said,” he giggled, “who wants to tell me what they said?”

“What’s in it for us?” slurred a local, blinking over his twelfth cup.

Aser moved across the room with blinding speed, upending the local’s chair and slamming him into the floor. “Survival,” Aser said, grinning, his hand tightening around the man’s throat.

A dozen chairs creaked or fell as their occupants jumped to their feet. Several ran for the door, only to be brought up short when the half-choked man Aser had been holding crashed into it and slid to the ground, moaning.

Two spacers came at Aser with knives. He laughed as he killed them with a single blow each.

***

A city in space, a world unto itself, the Dammerung floated in space. More than five hundred years ago, it had been the headquarters of the mighty Vector Corporation, a neutral power on par with the Immigrant Fleet and the Federation. After the Gnosis War, when the Dark Ages began, Vector collapsed, and Scientia took the city-ship over and devoted it entirely to research, to preserving and extending the knowledge of mankind.

For the Dammerung was no longer merely a ship the size of a city or a city built into a ship. It was a university the size of a city, built into a ship. Like any university, it had a plethora of committees and subcommittees, departments and colleges. One stood above all the others, however: the Council of Deans.

Here they met to discuss the important matters that affected all Scientia, the plans and policies, budgets and projects. Each of them represented the interests of one great College. Some were academic leaders, such as the Dean of Cosmology and Physics; others were concerned with more temporal affairs, such as the Quartermaster. Still others stood entirely alone, their position on the Council guaranteed by tradition, but the reasoning forgotten by all (excepting always HANA, of course, who would explain if asked, but no one ever did).

No matter the reason for their presence, each of these men and women was considered equal. Each possessed one and only one vote in their deliberations. No one could claim precedence over the others, and for this reason they were arrayed on either long side of the table.

Except one. The Director-Captain of the Dammerung sat alone at the head of the table. She alone could force a debate to close without a vote. She alone could demand an immediate vote on any issue she chose. She decided who sat on what subcommittee, and her approval was required for any budget. In times of crisis, she could even claim sole control of the ship for the duration, in her capacity as its captain.

She was reputed to be the most powerful person in the cluster. Her power was checked only by the Council itself, which could vote to replace her; in practice, however, deft political maneuvering could ensure that there were always more Deans who gained by her position as Director-Captain than gained by replacing her. Few Director-Captains had ever left office by means other than retirement or natural death in the five centuries since the legendary Momo Mizrahi had assumed and combined the positions formerly held by her equally legendary parents.

The current Director-Captain was the twenty-second to hold that title. Kara Mizrahi-Dirdan was a slim, tall, regal-looking woman with iron-gray hair pulled back in a tight bun. She radiated an aura of confidence and power, unsurprising in the woman who had held the title of “most powerful person in the cluster” for nineteen years.

All that power, unfortunately, was not enough to escape committee meetings.

“And so it appears necessary that, in order to minimize inefficiencies, we must vertically integrate the departments providing ship functions,” droned the Provost, and insufferably tweedy old man who’d served three Director-Captains with precise, fussy, mind-numbing distinction.

Enough was enough; he’d been talking for nearly half an hour without sitting down. That wasn’t unheard of, but with the Provost, half an hour could seem like an eternity. “Summary conclusion to discussion,” Mizrahi-Dirdan said. “All in favor?”

The Provost’s own hand waved pathetically in the air.

“All opposed?” Mizrahi-Dirdan’s own hand was joined by two others. The other forty eyes in the room were still completely glazed over. “HANA, record one in favor, three opposed, twenty abstentions. Motion defeated. Next item?” The Provost sat down, looking disgruntled. Doubtless he’d bring up the same scheme next time he found a patsy willing to second the motion, but hopefully that would be a while.

The Secretary glanced at his tablet. By tradition that had the force of law, he was neither a professor nor an officer, but a Hydroponics, Security, or Maintenance worker selected at random once each year. Besides keeping track of the agenda and reading the minutes (both provided to him, of course, by HANA), he had the same single vote of any other member, though he nearly always abstained. “Report by SDI Chief on destruction of Affiliate on Ur.”

Mizrahi-Dirden nodded to the Chief of Security, Defense, and Intelligence, who stood. “Madame Captain,” he acknowledged. He tapped his own tablet, and a hologram projector in the center of the table lit up, displaying a map of the Lesser Spiral Galaxy with the Fifth Jerusalem Sector marked. As he spoke, it zoomed in to display the region, showing the tiny Ur system in the neutral area between the two powers — the Fifth Jerusalem Federation and the Empire of Artaxerxes — that dominated the region. “As most of you by now know, a matter of hours ago, the Gate Station in the Ur system picked up a burst of radiation consistent with catastrophic asymmetry from the southwest quadrisphere of Ur itself. Repeated attempts to contact our Affiliate in that area have since failed.”

“Is it the disappearance phenomenon?” asked the Dean of Humanities fearfully.

The SDI Chief shook his head. “The burst was consistent with a Hilbert Atrophy bomb. We’ve monitored coded transmissions among Ur’s investigators. Apparently, they believe it’s a terrorist attack, backed by either a militant Fleet Church splinter group or a pro-FJF faction trying to look like the Fleet Church, it’s not clear.”

“Damn,” said the Dean of Social Sciences. “Either way, it’s going to destabilize the region still further, and possibly push Ur into joining one side or the other. I believe we’ll soon see a fourth Federation-Artaxerxes War over the matter.”

“And that, coupled with the internal instability of both empires…” said Humanities. She looked thoughtful. “It could seriously delay the renaissance we expect the completion of the IS Gate system to bring. You all know that the Fifth Jerusalem Sector is one of the likeliest places for it to begin.”

“There’s a more immediate concern,” said the Dean of Engineering. “The Original was being kept there. Its loss represents a serious setback for several projects.”

“Engineering projects,” scoffed the Dean of Physics. “Need I remind you that the completion of the IS Gate System, though a matter deserving of celebration, is not the final stage of Project Tetragrammaton? That remains, as it has always been, our highest priority.”

“I’d like to see you finish Tetragrammaton without engineers,” countered Engineering.

“What about trade?” asked the Quartermaster. “We’ve been getting a lot of our luxury foods and textiles from that area for the past decade. Should I be looking for another source?”

“Madame Director-Captain,” interrupted HANA. “There is an urgent matter requiring your attention.”

Everyone in the room stared at the ceiling, the usual source of HANA’s voice. She never spoke in Council meetings, or indeed in any meeting, unless asked a direct question. For her to interrupt was unthinkable.

“I’ll take it in the anteroom,” Mizrahi-Dirdan said, getting up.

It was popular, in Scientian poetry, to compare the Dammerung to a body. Its power cores and generators were a multitude of hearts; the bridge its nerve center; the Council of Deans its will. If that were true, reflected Mizrahi-Dirdan, then HANA was its soul.

HANA was the computer of the Dammerung. It was said that, centuries ago, she was a person, a Scientia researcher in the first two or three generations after the Fall. In the Golden Age, legend said, it had been a trivial matter to transmit a mind back and forth between body and machine, but with the loss of the UMN–whatever that was, if there ever really was such a thing, thought Mizrahi-Dirdan–it had become nigh-impossibly difficult. HANA was the one true success, a living mind copied into the Dammerung’s computers, vastened far beyond the capabilities of a mere human or Realian.

HANA watched, and listened, and advised. When you ate an exotic food for the fourth time in your life, and you got sick three days later, just as you had the last three times, HANA would notice even if you didn’t, and she would warn you to get tested for allergies. When you needed someone to talk to, someone who would never judge, HANA was there. HANA already knew.

It was HANA, Mizrahi-Dirdan suspected, and HANA alone that had kept Scientia from straying from its mission over the centuries. When the Dammerung was the only ship capable of traveling faster than light, it must have been tempting to come as conquerors rather than teachers, to set up puppet states instead of research Affiliates that were as much about helping the locals as helping Scientia. Seventy years ago, when the first IS Gates were built, it must have been tempting to use Scientia’s control over them to establish an empire, rather than remain strictly neutral and allow everyone who paid the fee to pass, from peaceful traders to enormous warfleets. Or to use the fees to become as rich as Vector had once been, able to buy anything they wanted and impose their will through economic force, instead of charging just barely enough to keep the gates running. That was the one Mizrahi-Dirden tended to fantasize about.

Hardly a week went by that HANA didn’t gently remind Mizrahi-Dirdan herself of some responsibility she was neglecting or some principle that a policy she was considering backing violated. Sometimes, Mizrahi-Dirdan wondered about her predecessor, retiring into obscurity at the peak of her career. HANA knew everything, after all. Every bit of knowledge Scientia gleaned, every Affiliate report, and everything said or done anywhere on the Dammerung, all went into HANA’s capacious memory banks. No one could reach the heights of the Director-Captainship without a few skeletons in their closet. Had, perhaps, HANA encouraged the old battle-axe to retire?

Sometimes Mizrahi-Dirdan wondered who the real leader of Scientia was.

No matter. HANA had interrupted the Council; it must be important. “What is it, HANA?” she asked.

A small text ad appeared, floating in the middle of the anteroom. “A small-scale independent trader uploaded this to our marketplace about an hour ago. Anything strike you as interesting?”

“That’s it?” asked Mizrahi-Dirdan. “I don’t understand.”

“The container is appropriately sized to contain the Original and support apparatus.”

“Huh,” said Mizrahi-Dirdan. “That’s an interesting coincidence, but there’s no evidence to connect it to the destruction of the Affiliate.”

“No?” asked HANA. “How about if I told you the Ahura was outward bound from Ur?”

“Okay, now that’s a little more interesting. But why don’t you get to the point?”

“It wasn’t called the Ahura when it left Ur. It was the Pellegri. Both ships are registered to dummy corporations, owned by –“

“Oh, hell. The Fleet Church.”

“Precisely,” said HANA.

“So, the Church staged a terrorist attack as a cover to steal the Original from us, probably with the collaboration of the Ur government. Then somebody else, also after the Original, attacked them off Bethel. The two groups mutually annihilated, and then this salvager picked up the Original. That’s the scenario you’ve mapped?”

“Very nearly,” said HANA. “The timing is slightly off. The Original must have left Ur no later than two days ago, assuming they traveled directly to Bethel. As it is in precisely the opposite direction from their most likely destination, Artaxerxes, I suspect it was indeed their first stop and that the Original was therefore on board the Pellegri when it left, rather than transferred from another ship in Imaginary Space.”

Mizrahi-Dirdan sat down and pinched her nose. She could feel a major headache coming on. “So whoever attacked the Ahura destroyed the Affiliate? No, that doesn’t make any sense. If they knew it was on the Ahura, why attack the Affiliate?” She groaned. “We’re dealing with at least three parties. The Fleet Church stole the Original and shipped it to Bethel. Somebody else learned about this and attacked the Ahura, trying to steal the Original. And the third party, unaware the Original was already gone, staged a terrorist attack on the Affiliate as cover for their own attempt to steal the Original. Yeesh.”

“That accords with my own analysis. I would append the possibility that the trader himself is a front for the second party, who seized the Original for purposes of selling it back to us.”

“Or the FJF, or the Church, or anybody else who might have the cash on hand. Do we have anyone nearby we can trust? I’ll have to use the discretionary fund for this; there’s too much politics involved to let the Council know. By the time they agreed to buy it, somebody else would have beaten us to it.”

“Agreed,” said HANA. “We do not have an Affiliate on Bethel, but there may be someone on the planet or in the IS Gate staff. An additional coincidence to note: the ship which made the salvage is the Isolde.”

Mizrahi-Dirdan blinked. “Why is that name familiar?” Her jaw dropped. “No,” she said, shaking her head. “No, the universe doesn’t work that way. It can’t be the same ship.”

“I have located someone I believe known to you personally who can ensure we are not cheated. Will this individual suffice?”

Mizrahi-Dirdan needed only to glance at the dossier HANA called up before she began laughing. “Perfect,” she said. “Set up a call with the trader.”
Aser is a bit of a struggle as a character, because there’s three competing things going on with him. First, I wanted an Albedo-like villain, because Albedo is one of the all-time great, effective villains. That’s easily done. Second, I wanted him to be distinct from Albedo. Also relatively easy–do some research, give him a real disorder instead of generic “crazy” villainy. Third, that’s still ableist as fuck, which is where the challenge is. I think I have an idea of how I can retain the unpredictability and viciousness of the archetype while not supporting stereotypes about the mentally ill, but it will take a little bit to unfold and will look quite a bit like those stereotypes in the early stages.

So, basically: sorry, I’m aware of the problem, and I’m working through it?

Xenosaga Fic: Chapter 3, Part Two

Continuing from where we left off a couple weeks ago…

In the absolute emptiness of intergalactic space a green AMWS drifted impossibly. It was tall and narrow and insectile, with an angular head much like a mantis’ and long, jointed limbs. Spikes curved cruelly from its knees, elbows, and shoulders, and a pair of long blades extended from its wrists and along the backs of its hands. There was nothing to suggest that it was remarkable–except for its location, hundreds of thousands of light-years from the nearest IS Gate.

Even the Dammerung, Scientia’s vast flagship and capital, which could create temporary Gates of its own, would have taken years to reach this distant spot. Any other ship would have had to have set out when stone tools and fire represented the cutting edge of australopithecine science.

And yet, here it was. The entire cluster lay beneath its feet, two great whorls of multi-colored light surrounded by a scattering of smaller balls and knots of stars. The Virgo Cluster gleamed over its shoulder, a tiny gathering of yellow and blue lights, impossibly distant. And beyond that…

Beyond that, spread out in every direction, was the universe. Great filaments of red and yellow, like rivers of jewels, curved and arced across the sky, marking the borders of vast bubbles of void. It was at once vibrant and serene, cold and beautiful, wonderful and terrifying.

Aser was the only human being to have ever seen it. Oh, astronomers had reconstructed it millennia ago, painstakingly mapping distant objects detectable only in radio through the thick dust and gas that surrounded every star, but Aser had seen it. He knew what no other human knew, would never know. He knew where God lived.

He gazed out in silence, at the infinite majesty of the universe, and pitied the poor fools who believed God cared about them. They ruled a cluster of a dozen galaxies, a paltry few billion stars, and believed themselves masters of the Universe. Aser knew better. One day, he would go out there, to the place no one else could ever reach, and touch the face of God.

He, and he alone, could do it. Those idiots, Calvin and the Primus, believed they led a cadre of Chosen, but Aser knew the truth. He was the only one could reach God, the only one truly Chosen.
He just had one piece of business to attend to first.

Aser, came a familiar voice drifting into his mind.

“Dasra,” he said. “What does our fearless leader wish of me today? Shall I bring him rare fruits, perhaps, from the gardens of Magella Minora? Or perhaps something sweeter? A young virgin from the flesh-markets of Orleans 3, mayhap?” He giggled. “Ah, how silly of me to forget. Our fearless leader does not partake of the pleasures of the flesh. He –” Aser could hardly finish the sentence from laughing. “He believes they’d take him farther from God!”

Aser, you know you shouldn’t speak of Calvin like that. In her own AMWS, countless quintillions of kilometers away, she sighed. Touching Aser’s mind was never pleasant at the best of times, but when he was out in the deeps, it could be downright disturbing. Once, she had made the mistake of going deeper into his thoughts than the level of intentional words.

She had seen many terrible things in the minds of the Chosen. She had no illusions on that front. She had seen herself and her sister, performing lewd acts in van der Kaum’s imagination. She knew how Mia felt every time she used her power. She knew what secret Calvin hid so deeply even he did not know it.

None of that had prepared her for Aser’s mind. In Aser she found a whirlwind of crystal fragments, countless broken pieces of thoughts and memories caught up in an endless torrent of feeling, never quiet, never still. In Aser there were depths of joy and heights of despair beyond anything she had ever felt or imagined. There was nothing there she could follow or understand, just terrible, black, howling wind and the occasional flash of a half-formed idea or one tiny piece of a perception.

What little she did see was, however, enough. She knew who Aser was, better perhaps than he did. She knew what he thought of himself, and what he thought of others. She had sworn then two things: first, that she would never again go deeper into his mind than she absolutely had to, and second, that she would never allow him to be alone with herself or her sister.

He just asked me to show you something I picked up. He doesn’t have any orders. Dasra fed Aser her memories of the attack on their freighter off Bethel, and the intervention of the Isolde.

“It is him?” said Aser. “You know his name?”

The only survivor is now her captain. It is him. His name is Seth Mikra.
“YES!” crowed Aser, and Dasra flinched at the burning-hot acid of his emotion pouring through every crack in her defenses. “Finally, finally! Oh, yes, I’m coming for you, old friend. I’ll burn you, cut you, crush you…” He laughed.

He must not be killed. You know that, Aser.“Oh, no, no, no. I won’t kill him. Of course I won’t.” Aser paused. “Can I maybe kill him a little?”

Aser.

“Mia would have laughed.” He pouted, but could only maintain it a moment before he began laughing again. “I’m going now.”

Please, Aser, don’t kill him. We need him. I’ll be watching.
Aser’s laughter faded to wonderment as he felt Dasra withdraw. He truly was closer to God out here. How else to explain that the one task he had left before he could fulfill his destiny was simply handed to him as soon as he began thinking about it?

“My slate will be wiped clean,” he hissed, filling with rage at the memory of what that man had done to him. “Seth Mikra will pay, if I have to tear apart the entire cluster and all the Chosen to get to him.” He looked out one last time at the universe. “I’ll be back, God.”

And then empty space was empty once more.

***

Nadeshiko put the lab report away with a sigh and looked down at her patient, a small and sallow man, balding and bearded. “Patient Ortir Kormas, age… approximately thirty-five,” she said for the recorders. “Found unconscious behind the single men’s barracks. Bloodwork indicates extreme hypoglycemia typical of late-stage Horviss-Greln disease.” She sighed. “Intravenous feeding has proven inadequate to counter symptoms. Supplies of Isoprate are low, so I will commence treatment with Korana–“

“Stop!”

Nadeshiko looked up to see her boss, Dr. Viri, standing at the entrance to the medium-risk ward. “What’s wrong?” she asked.

Viri’s pale, pudgy face was flushed, and his eyes, overlarge and the best of times, were bulging. “Koranafil! Do you want to kill him?”

“I– oh shit.”

Propanofil, Dr. Kodesh. Propanofil is the treatment of second choice for H-G. Koranafil is for renal failure.”

Nadeshiko hung her head. “I know that, doctor. You know I know that!”

“Yes, I do.” His flush was gone now; his face was stony as he walked over to the medication cooler and withdrew a bottle of Propanofil. “Normally. When did you last sleep, Nadeshiko?”

“I woke up half an hour ago,” she countered. “Are you trying to accuse me of something?”

“That depends. How long did you sleep?”

She looked away. “Three hours.”

“That’s what I thought. You need to sleep! Better no doctor at all than one who can’t keep her drugs straight.”

Nadeshiko winced. “Mizrahi–“

“Aren’t gods. You may need less sleep, but you still need sleep.”

“And I’m getting enough!” she insisted. “Now get out of my way and let me treat my patient.”

“No.” Viri attached the Propanofil to a nozzle on the patient’s IV, and watched a moment to make sure it was dripping properly into the stream. “There are two possibilities here, doctor. Either you’re entirely incompetent, which we both know isn’t true, or you’re slipping because of tiredness. Which do you prefer?”

“I made a mistake,” she said. “People make mistakes. Don’t tell me you’re not tired, too.”

“I am,” he said. “But I know I’ll save more lives on a good night’s sleep than I could by working myself into exhaustion. You seem to be having a hard time learning that.”

“Fine,” she said. “I’ll try to sleep more. Now I have to check up on patients.”

Viri shook his head. “No, Nadeshiko. You’re taking the week off, starting now. The supplies should be here today, so I won’t really need you for a few days. You can go back to town with the deliveryman, sleep in your own bed for a couple of nights, come back fresh when we start running low on nanomachines.”

“You can’t make me do that.”

Viri sighed. “Yes, I can. Go to the gate and see if the deliveryman’s here yet. If I hear of you touching a patient, you’re fired.”

For the second time that morning, Nadeshiko fought to deactivate her tear ducts. It was getting harder. Exhaustion pulled at every cell in her body, despite all her best efforts to fight it down. She wanted to scream at Viri, to tear him apart. Didn’t he understand that people were dying? What if somebody she could have saved died while she was gone?

“Fine,” she said, and slumped. “I’ll go. I’ll be back Saturday.”

“Good,” he said. “Get some sleep, and some exercise, and eat something fresh.”

“Yeah,” she said. She left the building, little more than a shack, and walked out into the harsh mid-morning sunlight. Finally alone, she shrieked her frustration at the sky.

It wasn’t supposed to be like this. She came to Bethel full of hope and pride. She’d seen herself, Scientia-trained, amazing the other doctors with her ability to heal these poor patients. She would save lives, heal the sick, and by the time her two-year stint was up, the refugee camp would be empty, everybody healed and home.

What a little idiot she’d been.